Reports of forced deportations are piling up: Russian soldiers are said to be interrogating Ukrainians, arresting them and forcibly deporting them from their homes to Russia. Now a Ukrainian woman reports how the occupiers kidnapped her husband.
After Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Natalia Kulakivska’s husband was kidnapped by soldiers at gunpoint, the Ukrainian tells NBC News. Only months later did she find out that he had been taken to Russia.
Scores of Ukrainian citizens are reporting on Russia’s so-called “filtration” operations. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have been forcibly deported to Russia, according to the US State Department.
According to NBC News, the suburb of Bucha where the couple lived has become the epitome of Russian atrocities. At the beginning of April, the occupiers withdrew from the area after five weeks of rule. Not much is left of the former green suburb.
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Around 20 Russian soldiers with machine guns at the ready forced her husband to his knees, Kulakivska told NBC News. She only had a few seconds to say goodbye to Yevhen Hurianov, to whom she has been married for 16 years. “I hugged him and touched his cheek,” she told NBC News while trying to hold back tears.
This was the last time she saw Hurianov. According to NBC News, Russian soldiers have accused him of belonging to a volunteer military unit of the Ukrainian territorial defense.
His wife denies this: Hurianov is an ordinary civilian. He works as an auto mechanic for a family business in the backyard of the family home, according to NBC News.
Kulakivska is convinced her husband is still alive, she tells NBC News. But she is not only looking for her husband: her sister’s husband, Serhii Liubych, and her nephew Vlad Bondarenko were also captured by Russian soldiers.
While her sister fled to Poland, Kulakivska stayed in Bucha to look for the three missing men. She believed that one day the men would come through the front gate.
In April, a former police officer named Oleh came to Kulakivska: he too had been kidnapped by the Russians, she reports to NBC News. In March, Oleh was taken with other men to a dark cellar in an unknown location – there he met her husband Hurianov. The two shared a mattress on the floor.
Oleh describes the cruel circumstances: They had to spend the next two days in the pitch-black, cold room – the prisoners were given porridge twice a day, which they had to eat with their hands. They were only allowed to use the toilet once a day.
So the two men made a pact: The first to come back alive would find the other’s family and tell them what had happened, writes “NBC News”. After two days, the blindfolded and handcuffed prisoners were taken out of the basement and loaded onto a truck.
According to NBC News information, the prisoners were taken to Ukraine’s northern border with Belarus. Finally, the men found that Kulakivska’s nephew was also on the truck.
Oleh spent the next three weeks in a jail in the western Russian city of Kursk before being exchanged for Russian prisoners held by Ukraine, NBC News reports. Kulakviska’s husband last saw Oleh in Belarus.
However, he saw Kulakviska’s nephew jump off the truck near Chernobyl, writes NBC News. Kulakivska would have clung to the hope for days that the nephew was still alive. At the end of April, however, she learned from a Telegram group that her nephew’s body, which had been hit by bullets, had been found by locals.
There are many people like Kulakivska in Ukraine: the war has forced them to hope that relatives will return. In July, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Russian authorities “interrogated, detained and forcibly deported from their homes to Russia between 900,000 and 1.6 million Ukrainian citizens, including 260,000 children,” according to NBC News.
Russia, on the other hand, would deny the atrocities, accusing Kyiv of orchestrating them to discredit the Russian army, writes NBC News. “The allegations against our country of ‘forced deportation of Ukrainian citizens’ to the territory of the Russian Federation are baseless and conjectures aimed at discrediting Russia,” the Russian Foreign Ministry told NBC News in a mail.
For Kulakivska, waiting is the hardest part: “Waiting and understanding that there is nothing I can do,” she tells NBC News. By tracking down and speaking to two other men who were in Russian custody with her husband, she now knows that her husband is being held in a prison in the Russian region of Bryansk.
She told NBC News that she tried to call the prison but was told there were no Ukrainian citizens being held there. After several calls from Kulakivska, the International Committee of the Red Cross confirmed in July that her husband was in Russian custody.
At the end of last month she received a letter in his writing from the Red Cross. It just said, “I’m alive and in good health,” Kulakivska told NBC News. She’s still waiting for her husband to step through the gate in front of her house.